It's easy to write a musicological study that talks about instrumentation and practices, such as offering making, but when you take seriously a discourse about spiritual power, I think you are doing something that is little different. I think you are empowering the voices of Balinese who are living this aspect of their life in a very real way.

An American couple unable to have children will most likely visit a medical fertility doctor. A Balinese Hindu couple facing the same problem might visit a special local temple and ask the reigning deity to grant them a child. In return, the couple may stage a gamelan performance

Gamelan is a type of Indonesian musical ensemble, often performed with both music and dance together. The instruments include pitched pot gongs, tuned gongs, drums, and often bamboo flutes and a spike fiddle.

Although gamelan music is a performed tradition, it has significant spiritual elements and is not merely entertainment. Like the couple wishing for a child, Balinese gamelan is often performed for a ceremonial or ritual reason and with offerings made to deities. Many gamelan instruments, it is said, are imbued with spiritual powers, to the extent that mistreating them can lead to sickness or other tragedy.

As an ethnomusicologist, Bethany Collier, an assistant professor of music, studies the role of gamelan in Indonesian life.

"It's easy to write a musicological study that talks about instrumentation and practices, such as offering making, but when you take seriously a discourse about spiritual power, I think you are doing something that is little different. I think you are empowering the voices of Balinese who are living this aspect of their life in a very real way," Collier said. "This isn't folklore to them. This is reality."

When Collier started to play gamelan, she found the experience to be completely different from playing western music.

"Balinese gamelan music is very, very fast, but it's all memorized, so everything is taught by rote. There is no musical notation in front of you," she said. "I found that to be liberating in a lot of ways once I started to understand how things work."

Collier teaches Javanese gamelan at Bucknell and is thinking about someday starting a community-based Balinese gamelan group.

"I hope people will be interested in learning about gamelan," she said. "It would be great to have more people come along and play. There is no prerequisite."

Learn more about the Balinese gamelan that Collier plays with in New York City.

Posted Sept. 22, 2008

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